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For Some in Senate, Losing Once Is Way to Win

A Failed Senate Bid Can Lead to an Election Comeback; Several Candidates Giving Races Another Try

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Sen. Bob Corker first ran for the Senate in 1994 but lost to Bill Frist in the GOP primary. A dozen years later when the seat opened up again, Corker ran and won.

Correction Appended

For the world’s most exclusive club, the Senate sure has a lot of losers. 

Almost a dozen Senators lost their first races for the Senate only to come back later in their careers and win. This cycle, a trio of Republicans are trying to join the club. 

“Losing was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Sen. Bob Corker told Roll Call. “I make a much better Senator today than I ever possibly could have been.” 

The Tennessee Republican first ran for the Senate in 1994 but lost to Bill Frist in the GOP primary. A dozen years later when the seat opened up again, Corker ran and won. Between Senate runs, Corker gained experience in business as well as state and local government, including four years as the mayor of Chattanooga.

“All the experience made me more mature and allowed me to serve at a much higher level,” Corker added. 

The stories and timelines vary from candidate to candidate and state to state, but a Senate loss can result in valuable name recognition and invaluable campaign experience. 

In Ohio, for example, losing your first Senate race is practically a rule. The current Senators each won their first time around, but the three previous Senators were one-time losers.

Sen. John Thune (R) had already been elected statewide to South Dakota’s at-large seat when he gave up his House seat to challenge Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2002. Thune lost that race by 524 votes but came back two years later to knock off Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in another extremely competitive and close race. 

This cycle, former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) is hoping to join Thune and Corker. She ran for Senate in 2008 but lost in the primary to Rep. Steve Pearce

“My children had never seen me lose anything,” said Wilson, who consistently won re-election in a very competitive district in Albuquerque. “I wanted to be a role model to them, show them how to work hard, fight hard and be gracious in defeat.” 

Wilson endorsed Pearce after the primary and co-hosted several fundraisers for him. Now she believes she’s laid a solid foundation to win the state’s other Senate seat next year.

“Politics is about people and relationships, and we’re building on top of that,” Wilson told Roll Call recently. She cautioned, however, that “every campaign is different” and that it would be a mistake to rerun the last race, even though she lost by only 2 points. 

The Senate losers club shrunk recently when John Ensign resigned his Nevada seat. 

The Republican lost his 1998 challenge to Sen. Harry Reid (D) by 428 votes but came back two years later to win the open seat created by retiring Sen. Richard Bryan (D). Reid himself overcame an initial Senate loss, a 1974 defeat at the hands of Sen. Paul Laxalt (R), with his own election in 1986.

Like Thune, Ensign’s election in 2000 meant he served with the man who defeated him.

This cycle in Montana, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) is giving up his seat to challenge Sen. Jon Tester (D). If Rehberg wins, he’ll serve with Sen. Max Baucus, the Democrat who defeated him in 1996. 

It would be 16 years from Senate defeat to victory for Rehberg, but an extended time between bids wouldn’t be unprecedented, particularly since he has spent 10 years in the House.

In Maryland, Barbara Mikulski (D), then a Baltimore city councilwoman, took 43 percent in her failed quest to unseat Sen. Charles Mathias (R) in 1974. A dozen years later, when Mathias retired, Mikulski won his open seat after serving a decade in the House.

Mark Warner (D) lost his 1996 challenge to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a race that saw bumper stickers reading “Mark, not John.” But Mark Warner went on to become a successful businessman and served a term as the commonwealth’s governor. When John Warner retired in 2008, Mark Warner easily won the seat. 

For other Senators, the turnaround was shorter, sometimes much shorter. 

After narrowly losing the GOP primary in Pennsylvania to Sen. Arlen Specter in 2004, Pat Toomey maintained his profile as a national conservative leader and was elected six years later. (Specter also lost his first Senate bid before he was elected.) Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) had eight years between his initial loss in the 1996 Republican Senate primary and his election in 2004. 

In 1974, Dick Lugar (R) lost his challenge to Sen. Birch Bayh (D) in Indiana, but he defeated the state’s other Senator, Vance Hartke (D), just two years later. 

Like Lugar, Jeanne Shaheen (D) benefited in part from a more favorable political environment the second time around. Then governor, Shaheen lost her first Senate race in New Hampshire to John Sununu (R) in 2002. But six years later, she came back to defeat him. She’s the only sitting Senator to avenge her initial loss against the same candidate. 

Don Stenberg is hoping to rack up a similar achievement, but the Nebraska Republican is also entering uncharted waters.  

This is Stenberg’s fourth race for the Senate. He lost to Chuck Hagel in the Republican primary in 1996. He lost to then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D) in the closest race in Nebraska history in 2000. And he ran again in 2006 and lost in the primary, again. 

Stenberg has been elected statewide four times, including three terms as attorney general and his election as state treasurer last fall. This cycle he faces state Attorney General Jon Bruning and others in the GOP primary for the right to face Nelson again.

Nelson was a one-time loser (a 1996 loss to Hagel) before he was elected in 2000. 

Vermont’s Bernie Sanders had two Senate losses very early in his career (1972 and 1974), when he ran as a third-party candidate and received less than 5 percent of the vote. But he later represented the entire state in an at-large Congressional district for eight terms. Sanders was elected in 2006 (32 years after his previous Senate run) as an Independent, but he was the de facto Democratic nominee as well.  

The late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) also lost two Senate races before being appointed to his seat and subsequently winning a special election and six full terms.

Of course, losing a Senate race does not guarantee victory, and Stenberg could go the way of Republican Alan Keyes — who has managed to lose two Senate races in Maryland (1988 and 1992) as well as one in Illinois (against Barack Obama in 2004) — and Christine O’Donnell, who has now lost three Senate races in Delaware (2006, 2008 and 2010).

In North Carolina, Erskine Bowles (D) lost races in both 2002 and 2004, and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt (D) went home empty-handed in 1990 and 1996. In Colorado, Democrat Tom Strickland lost in 1996 and 2002 and Republican Bob Schaffer lost in 2004 and 2008. Former Rep. Ed Bryant (Tenn.) couldn’t get out of Republican primaries in 2002 or 2006.

Correction: May 13, 2011

An earlier version of this story misstated the leadership title of then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) when he was defeated in 2004.

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